Lincoln's Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered

By William A. Blair; Karen Fisher Younger | Go to book overview

But What Did the Slaves
Think of Lincoln?

STEVEN HAHN

During the months surrounding the presidential election campaign of 1860, and especially during the late winter and spring of 1861, reports circulated across the southern states of political attentiveness and restlessness among the slaves. Observers noted the slaves’ attraction to “every political speech” and their disposition “to linger around” the hustings or courthouse square “and hear what the orators say.” But even more significantly, witnesses told of elevated hopes and expectations among the slaves that Lincoln intended “to set them all free.” Indeed, once Lincoln assumed office and fighting erupted between the Union and Confederacy, hopes and expectations seemed to inspire actions. On a plantation near Petersburg, Virginia, a group of slaves celebrated Lincoln’s inauguration by proclaiming that they were free and marching off their owner’s estate. In northern Alabama slaves had apparently come to believe that “Lincoln is soon going to free them all” and had begun “making preparations to aid him when he makes his appearance.” A runaway slave in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, told his captors in late May 1861 that “the North was fighting for the Negroes now and that he was as free as his master.” Shortly thereafter, Louisiana planter Kate Stone breathed a sigh of relief when the Fourth of July, when Lincoln called Congress into special session, “passed without any trouble with the Negroes.” “In some way,” she confided to her diary, “they have gotten a confused idea of Lincoln’s Congress meeting and of the war; they think it is all to help them and they expected for ‘something to turn up.’”1

Historians have, for the most part, treated reports such as these as evidence of the generally unsettled state of affairs in the slave South of this period, and particularly of the fears and stresses that secession and the outbreak of hostilities placed on the minds of slaveholders and other

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